To some, “Ginger” is nothing more than a scooter. To others, it's a revolutionary invention that will change the world. However, with the exception of a few high-profile investors and 49-year-old scientist Dean Kamen (who is expected to reveal his mysterious machine sometime in 2002) few people actually know what Ginger does.

That didn't stop The Harvard Business School Press from paying $250,000 for exclusive rights to a book about the device. The esteemed literary institution did so after reviewing a controversial book proposal, excerpts of which were leaked in January by Inside.com.

The media news website quoted such heavy-hitters as Apple Computer co-founder Steve Jobs and Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos raving about Ginger in tantalizing terms. “If enough people see the machine, you won't have to convince them to architect cities around it,” Jobs reportedly says. “It'll just happen.”

As important as the Internet?

According to the article, Jobs calls Ginger as significant as the PC, while John Doerr, a prominent Silicon Valley venture capitalist, declares the device as important as the World Wide Web. Another investor, Credit Suisse First Boston, predicts that in five years Kamen will be richer than Bill Gates.

The book proposal never explains what the invention is. But according to Inside.com, it does say Ginger “will profoundly affect our environment and the way people live worldwide.”

The report sparked a media frenzy and rampant Internet rumor mongering. The New York Times printed speculation that Ginger might be a kind of gyroscopically stabilized unicycle.

Meanwhile, websites espouse all kinds of theories. Projectginger.com, for example, includes images purportedly taken from Kamen's patent application. It claims “Ginger” is an acronym for “Geomagnetic Inductance Neutralizing Gasoline Engine Replacement.”

Kamen's no slouch

Crazy as it all might sound, Ginger apparently exists. Though eccentric, Kamen is an accomplished inventor. His creations include a wheelchair that climbs stairs; an intervascular heart stent that reduces blockage in arteries; a portable dialysis machine; and a drug infusion pump.

Kamen, who claims Ginger must be kept secret to stop people from stealing the idea, has tried to downplay the invention's potential. But speculation continues. A friend of mine recently overheard a co-worker talking about Ginger. “It will change everything,” the woman said. “It's going to be incredible.”

A familiar ring

Response to the Ginger story recalls the early days of e-commerce, when the air fairly crackled with unbridled enthusiasm for all things dot.com. At the time, people criticized the shopping center industry for being too slow to embrace technology. Some even predicted the death of traditional retail.

The doomsday scenarios forced the industry to pay attention. Many developers and owners invested in useful technologies. Others merely gave lip service to the idea, preferring to make money as they always had — by managing malls, brokering deals, signing new leases, and buying and selling properties.

Just a few months ago, technology press releases flooded the business wires, promising to “revolutionize” retail, leasing, financing, property management, construction, and so on. Now, with the dot.com shake-up in full swing, many of these same companies are canning CEOs, laying off staffers, or shutting down altogether.

Not that technology is irrelevant to real estate. Rather, the hysteria caused by Ginger highlights the pitfalls of our society's deeply held faith in technology. Having never seen Kamen's invention, some Americans appear convinced of its power to change the world. Similarly, faith in the Internet caused otherwise astute investors to back shaky start-ups and pour millions right down the toilet.

For the most part, the shopping center industry put its faith in proven profitability rather than grandiose promises. That stance suddenly seems pretty wise.